By Kate O’Dell, Editor-in-Chief
UNO hosted the Midwest Freethinker Conference Aug. 3 through Aug. 5. This was the fourth conference held in the mid west, and the second conference held in Omaha and at UNO. Two hundred and ten people attended the 3-day conference, increasing the participation by 80 percent since last year.
The UNO Secular Student Alliance (SSA) is a student group that meets weekly on campus and gives like-minded students the opportunity to meet with each other and have a sense of community. The student group formed about three years ago and membership has increased steadily since it began.
Recruitment was key in promoting the conference, and the students in the SSA did not take this task lightly. Networking with college students through social media was one of their priorities in preparation of the event. As a result, the group now has over 100 people on their Facebook page.
The conference received a lot of attention from the media earlier in the summer when the Omaha World-Herald covered the billboard on 72nd Street that displayed this statement: “Don’t believe in God? Join the club.”
The controversy continued when Luke Hoffman, former president of the SSA, was told on air by host Scott Voorhees that “atheist chicks are easy and goth girls are hot.”
“The negative comment that Scott Voorhees gave was an opportunity to make people aware that these are the stigmas we are up against,” Hoffman said. “We get to turn that and focus on our values, which are humanist values.”
The negative attention likely contributed to the increased attendance and awareness of the conference. Although the group does not condone negativity, it certainly can be said that no media is bad media.
“However much they wanted to harm the group by saying negative things, it did increase our profile. Being able to come up on search engines,” said Hoffman. “As long as there is buzz going around, whether it is positive or negative, our actions will speak for themselves.”
The conference kicked off with a social gathering at Clancy’s on 114th Street. As guests arrived on campus Saturday they were guided by chalk arrows indicating where they would find the conference.
Throughout the weekend, guests could be seen coming and going from campus wearing their admission passes. Saturday’s program included speakers Paul Meyers, associate professor of biology from the University of Minnesota Morris and science blogger; Jerry DeWitt, a former Pentecostal minister and executive director of Recovering From Religion; Dan Barker, co-host of Freethought Radio and co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation; Brian Dunning, host and producer of the weekly podcast “Skeptoid;”Amanda Knief, administrative director for American Atheists and previous government relations manager at Secular Coalition for America; and Hemant Mehta, writer of “Friendly Atheist,” a 2011 Bloggie award winner for Best Weblog About Religion.
A highlight of the event was the student panel on Saturday when different topics were discussed and debated. As a result of the panel, the SSA is rethinking the way they structure their student group. Exit polls were handed out to give the student group insight on the experience for participants. These insights will be used in future event planning for the SSA.
The event provided students in the SSA an opportunity to learn first hand what it takes to put on a conference of this magnitude. Several work groups, that operated under the planning committee of the Omaha Coalition of Reason, planned the conference.
“It gave us the change to be involved in something big. A lot of us had no experience running anything of this magnitude,” Cara Neufeld, President of the SSA said. “Skills were used in the event planning and we tried to get as many students involved as possible.”
Neufeld first got involved with the group as a freshman in 2011. She said the most important thing the group does for students is provide them with a sense of community.
“Secular students can easily be ostracized by family and friends just for something as simple as not believing in a god. Secular students often feel alone,” Neufeld said. “The SSA provides a place to create close ties and knit people together so when something happens we are a group for these people.”
The Omaha Coalition of Reason will meet to plan the conference for next year this fall. There is talk of holding the conference in the fall as opposed to the summer.
“It can be hard to get in touch with students over the summer, so we think it might increase participation if we were able to push the date to fall,” Neufeld said.
The SSA meets on Wednesdays at 4:30 p.m. in the Milo Bail Student Center in the Chancellor’s Room. Meetings are open to all students.
Another plan for this upcoming semester is to implement some community service projects for the group to volunteer.
“One of our goals is to start a service project to do more to help the community,” Neufeld said. “We are not just sitting around making fun of people who don’t think the way that we do.”
For more information on the UNO Secular Student Alliance, find them on facebook.com/unossa.com.